Sacha Baron Cohen recently spoke about how social media services have become the “greatest propaganda machine in history”.
Much of the media’s focus, when reporting on his remarks, was on his attack on Facebook. While he certainly targeted Facebook, he also spoke about how Google, YouTube, and Twitter shape online discourse, and how they help spread lies, bigotry, and attacks on fact-based discussions.
Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others—they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged—stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history—the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, “Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.”Sacha Baron Cohen
As much as we embrace free expression, we find it difficult to draw a line when liars and bigots abuse their right to free expression because doing that feels like hypocrisy.
Free expression isn’t unlimited, though. And pushing back against channels that help propagate misinformation, abuse, and false statements that impact substantial segments of the population is becoming more important.
At the very least, it’s worth watching Cohen’s talk, or reading his remarks:
We should also think carefully about how much trust we place in services that profit from the social chaos we see around us.Featured image by Miguel Henriques